Meditations on “A Meditation on Meditation and Embodied Presence”

Carrie Heeter has just shared with me a paper she’s written on meditation and embodied presence (Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 25-2, 2016) <edit available at http://carrie.seriousgames.msu.edu/docs/A_Meditation_on_Embodied_Presence_and_Meditation.pdf>. Anyone who’s read my stuff will know that a large proportion of it is looking at how presence can support our online learning, and how the ideas of offline embodied cognition apply to our online experience. There are a few names that always crop up in my list of references and Prof. Heeter’s is one of them. One of the most influential of the papers I’ve read was one in which she looked at people’s identification with their on-screen image, (Heeter, C. (1995) Communication research on consumer VR. in F. Biocca and M.R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 191-218).)  About 25% identified with the screen, about half were mixed, and about 25% were so connected to their physical self that they couldn’t make the transition. In my PhD I found this 25% cropped up again and again  – I called them the Heeter Quarter – and there’s some neurological evidence that backs this up too (http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/7/1577.full).

Presence is a tricky concept to get your head around. I started my PhD in 2005 and all I managed to do by 2006 was come up with definitions of it. My supervisor (my second, the first had had enough,  I think) asked me what it means in general – outside of online learning. It was really difficult coming up with some hard definitions of it, we all know it when we see it, classroom presence, screen presence, stage presence, but nowhere actually broke it down. Poise, elan, attention.

And explaining it to others, I’d say “well you know you can sit in a boring lecture, you’re physically there, but you’re not really present, the same can happen onscreen, in fact some people never feel that sense of connection”.

I was going to write about this recently after reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Presence-Bringing-Your-Boldest-Self-Biggest-Challenges/1409156001/ (well the bits I could read on the free preview). I got the general gist, which is that these ideas of presence can actually influence how you’re perceived, and so how you can be more successful if you develop them. She’s the person who did the research into power posing, i.e. standing in a Superman (or Wonder Woman) pose can make you feel more confident. I heard about this on a podcast, so initially thought of the hand raised flying pose, but it’s actually this one http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/geosheas-lost-episodes/images/f/ff/Fleischer-superman.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20151006182504 The book is basically lots of techniques on how to improve your presence. Body posture, voice, that sort of stuff. When I’m doing my staff development workshops on using Connect or SL, a lot is how to develop the online versions of body posture, and so on, in a nutshell the videoconferencing version of a firm handshake.

Back to Prof Heeter’s paper. It looks at meditation techniques, here are two guided meditations linked to from the paper. https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo1.mp3 and https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo2.mp3 I’ve tried them, she has a great voice for this sort of thing, though I was hindered by one of my cats choosing that moment to climb on me. I’m now having to write this with her asleep on top of me as a consequence.

The central thesis of the paper is that – going much further than I did when describing how sometimes we’re not really there, like if we’re in a boring lecture – that actually we’re not really present properly for the majority of the time. Interoception – paying attention to our bodies and our minds – can actually improve this sense of presence. Even the poor attempt I made at it while listening to those two audio links makes a difference, I think I do feel a bit more aware of the weight of Pasht on my chest now for example.

Promoting the experience of presence for the Heeter Quarter of my students I found very difficult. There was some correlation with how connected they were to their physicality (the three that struggled the most were a footballer, a cyclist and a sculptor – though that’s too small a sample size to really determine anything obviously). Other things like motivation helped, ideological opposition made it harder (see some of the work I did with Anna when she was Peachey not Childs for example e.g. (Childs, M. and Peachey, A. (2011) Love it or Hate it: Students’ Responses to the Experience of Virtual Worlds, in P. Jerry and L. Lindsey Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds: Opening an Undiscovered Country, 81-91. Witney, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press,).

The most recent paper by Prof Heeter looks at meditation activities done in VR as a means to encourage greater sense of virtual presence, and they seem to have worked. This reminds me of the meditation tree in Chilbo that Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) created in SL. You could sit your avatar in an animation ball and it would go through some yoga poses and it was actually very calming. It would be really interesting to try some of the techniques mentioned in the paper in VR to see if it does help with a greater experience of presence. First steps though – I’m going to try the techniques IRL and see if they help with a greater experience of presence there.

Changing the student digital experience pt 5

One thing that developing a framework does is enable you to see more clearly where there are gaps. Sort of like Mendeleev and his periodic table. Putting the 13th principle together with the in-between spaces group, and then mapping what we came up with to the Jisc NUS benchmarking tool showed that those categories overlapped with the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th principles of the tool. Which then raises  the question, what about the overlap between blended coalescent spaces and the 12th principle, ie digital well-being?

It’s not something we were focusing on but it is a key aspect of introducing blended and virtual spaces – there are a range of different elements to digital well-being that only emerge when we start transitioning between physical and virtual spaces, or merge the two.

To some extent, this is relatively advanced stuff compared to just regular looking after yourself while online, but virtual spaces usually require an avatar for interaction and that opens up a whole new area of digital experience. (Augmented reality too, although perhaps this isn’t so much digital well-being as physical, inasmuch as watching where you’re going when you’re hunting Pokemon.)  One of the things that emerged when I was looking at virtual worlds is how the sense of presence exposes the user in ways that don’t occur when you’re a disembodied presence in a forum.

One of these is presentation of self. With the whole variety of choices available to you, what you choose has a big impact. Do you choose your physical world sex for your avatar? Do you choose your physical world gender? What if those are different from each other? Do you want to take the opportunity to explore identity by adopting a different ethnicity, sex, species? Will you expose yourself to hostility if you adopt an animal avatar, or a mechanical one? (I spent a lot of time in Second Life as an airship – that got some weird reactions. Though the spider one was the only one that generated outright hostility).

If we as educators introduce virtual worlds to our students, there is some responsibility for their continued interactions with virtual worlds, even outside of the learning situations. If they’ve become interested, and developed an online identity, as a result of our teaching, they may decide to continue and explore more. And there’s some weird stuff in there, which they need to learn to ensure they’re comfortable with before engaging with (or perhaps be resilient enough to be OK with being uncomfortable). That level of embodiment also enables people to form relationships, and there can be a mismatch between the significance that people attach to those. Which can lead to people being hurt.

There is reputation management too. If you want to be taken seriously in online interactions, maybe a giraffe isn’t the best choice of avatar. But then, I did get to know one academic simply because he and I were dressed as punks at an ESRC event in SL when everyone else was in suits. So representation of self is something to be consciously engaged with, and many people first entering virtual worlds tend to be oblivious to the relevance of avatar design.

At the moment, perhaps these concerns aren’t huge ones for educators, but at least we know where to put them on the site once we do start thinking about them.

 

 

Metaxis and liminality

“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey”

Just as I began to write this blog I experienced an excellent example of Metaxis – I’m sitting in the local car servicing garage, in the waiting room, but absorbed in what I’m doing. My sense of presence is removed from my immediate surroundings, my mind is entirely within the online environment, and then Beck (Loser) starts playing on the radio. Straight away I’m pulled out of what I’m doing and (3-2-1) I’m back in the room. It’s that good a song. And appropriately the garage is called In ‘n’ Out. And now it’s Guns and Roses (Sweet Child of Mine). This will take a while.

Liminality is a word that’s banded around a lot, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure people have a grip on what it is. It’s a word that starts in discussions of the theatre and has been adopted more generally by anthropologists, and has made its way into education. The limen is the edge of the stage, it’s the threshold that separates the world of the performers and the world of the audience. Liminality is then the experience of transition between two spaces. In a theatre the edge between make-believe and reality is an obvious one; there’s also an important transition between outside and inside the theatre.

“Where do we go now?”

It’s different from an interstitial space however. Interstitial is between two other spaces, true, and is unallocated, so opens up a range of possibilities. The BLTC conference is largely constructed around interstitial spaces. Corridors, bridges, studio workspaces, dining rooms, without the rules of regular spaces, other things can happen.

The learning commons type of learning environments work like interstitial spaces, they’re neither formal nor informal spaces, they’re institutional but also personal. In Oldenberg’s typology they’re both second and third places – so two-and-a-halfth spaces.

Liminal spaces describe something different than just this interstiality … interstitialness … interstitial nature. The world of the stage isn’t like the regular world. It has a narrative.

damn the Stones are on … there will be another intermission

The people on it are supposed to be people other than who they appear to be. They’re not the two actors off the X-Men movies, they’re Estragon and Vladimir, for example. To engage properly with the space requires a willing suspension of disbelief, or rather (I’d suggest) an engagement of belief.

“I saw her today at the reception”

It’s not just theatre and it’s not just space either. We’ve seen in this blog entry how music can create a separate world within another one. There can be a moment of liminality, a transition from one world to another, anywhere. I can be sitting in a room but not aware of it because the background sound is some bland pop music, and it lulls the senses. I become absorbed in the world of what I’m doing online, it’s just me and you, my audience, and then some familiar strains of a rock track starts up on the radio and I’m pulled out of the world I’m creating, and pulled into the world that the musicians create. I suppose you might not like the Rolling Stones, or Beck, or Guns and Roses (if that’s the case, you might want to check your pulse) and it might not have the same effect. You might be able to sit in the audience of a play and not get drawn into the action because Beckett’s not your thing. Engagement of belief is key.

Other spaces have the same requirement. Ritual spaces, game spaces, sports arenas. Other media create the same transition within a space, books, TV, (with narrative media it’s called the diegetic effect). You cross that limen and you’re somewhere else.

Except you’re not entirely. That’s where metaxis comes in. Your sense of location and presence is a zero sum. The more you leave one world, the more you enter the other, but you can be split between the two to various extents. Sirs Ian and Patrick might be great, but you’re aware of the pressure of the seat in front of you on your knees; you’re absorbed in the stuff you’re writing, but aware that the Cranberries have just started. Or you’re getting wound up because you’ve just landed on Yavin IV for the third time in a row, but it’s only Monopoly so doesn’t *really matter. Not really. Honest.

Virtual worlds depend on engagement of belief to be fully effective as learning environments. For students so located within the physical world, they can’t lose their sense of their surroundings, and so can’t fully engage in the belief in the virtual. I think imagination has something to do with it too. Carrie Heeter calls it the Peter Pan effect, which sums it up nicely.

So why do it if it disadvantages some students? Well one reason is that for those who can experience these liminal spaces as they are meant to be experienced, it can open up new opportunities for interaction, for expression and engagement. If you can stand on the steps of the Theatre of Dionysus, as it was in ancient Greece, and actually feel it, that’s qualitatively different from just looking at a picture. And from personal experience I’d say conveys something more than standing on those steps as it is now (though that’s impressive too).

But also liminality isn’t just about the experience of presence in those spaces, it’s also about all the other things that transform when we’re in those imagination-dependent spaces (which I call 4th places for short – extending Oldenberg’s typlogy by one more). Identity, roles, rules of behaviour, community, all are transfigured by stepping over that limen. Some people would argue that the rationale for creating those spaces is that those things are transformed. Turner talked about the sense of communitas in a theatrical experience, fellowship and agápē are often words to describe the feeling of ritual spaces. Bernard Suits suggested that attending sporting events isn’t really about whether your team scores a goal or not, it’s about that feeling of camaraderie that occurs when the goal is scored. Because metaxis-wise there’s always the small voice at the back of your head that says this God doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t really matter whether my team wins, those two guys aren’t really waiting for Godot, the actual world outside the 4th places  intrudes to some extent but is suppressed to make the space you’re in work properly.

As far as education goes, these spaces can be enormously valuable, but I’d say that we’re still working out how they work, and what they mean. Looking for commonalities between them can also be instructive. They can also be difficult spaces to set up and support, but you know, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.

 

 

 

 

Interstitial and liminal spaces

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the BLTC planning and the themes identified, have coincided with an online discussion group that I’ve recently joined on the subject of inbetween spaces. It’s been mainly an email discussion group, but we’ve also met up online in a Google circle. The video of that first meeting is here:

 

You can see here evidence of the strength of the written word over spoken in my case. A combination of lack of sleep (insomnia could be an upcoming blog post) and the mania that comes with being exposed to a mass of interesting ideas from interesting people rendered me almost unintelligible at moments, but I think the others make plenty of sense, so the video is well worth watching.

Liminal spaces is one of the themes of Making Sense of Space; a book I worked on with my friend Iryna Kuksa. The book proposal was hers, and she invited me to contribute to it. I was stuck for what to contribute, then decided to rework a proposal I’d made for a Marie Curie Fellowship, which had fallen through. It was an excellent complementarity between Iryna’s work and mine; she’d got a monograph on design of spaces in virtual worlds, I’d got my stuff on the experience of spaces in virtual worlds, we put them together and co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. I’d also got a couple of chapters’ worth of work that was on work I’d collaborated on in both education and performance in virtual worlds, and it all fitted together really well – after Iryna had honed out many of my off-topic musings (I managed to persuade her to leave some in).

One thing that helped me pull my bit together was a model I’d come up with a few years earlier, which is an extended version of Activity Theory. Activity Theory has evolved over the years; starting with Vygotsky, then reformulated by Leont’ev and extended by Engestrom. To that illustrious list you can now add Childs :-p

I like activity theory as a description of what goes on when activities take place. It’s pretty simple to get hold of once you realise it’s not really a theory. It simplifies quite a complicated process by breaking it into its component parts, and enables you to singly consider the connections between those parts. It usually gets represented as a triangle, like this:

 

Obviously it’s just a representation – reality is what Adams once described as a WSOGMM (whole sort of general mish-mash) – but that’s too messy to really get a handle on.

The problem with activity theory is that it misses out two factors that a elemental in understanding activities and that is the participants’ sense of presence, with the space and with each other, and their identity, as learners, teachers, whatever. Now it’s fair to say that identity is probably already in there, it only makes sense in terms of community, or in the roles that we’re assigned, or I’d say it’s actually a tool we use in interaction. But anything that’s smeared across so many other categories just adds to the messiness of the analysis, so it’s simpler to just add it as another category.

What we then get is a triangle with identity and presence on either side – which actually looks like this when made a bit more regular:

activity theory

These eight categories then give a useful way of breaking down the specific characteristics of liminal spaces.

That’s a lot to go into here (plus, you know, buy the book) but I’ll talk about just one of these, in the next post; presence.

 

Creating presence online

Last week my headset stopped working in a videoconference with my line manager. I asked him to wait a few minutes while I found a replacement and went to the Bag of Useful Things at the end of my sofa. My cat was sitting on the arm.

Cat (looking on): Meeeoooww.

Me (to cat): I know, I’m looking for a spare headset.

Cat: Meeeeoooww.

Me (tipping stuff onto floor): OK it’s a mess, I’ll clear it up later.

Cat: Meeeooow

Me: No. Nothing there. I’ll give up.

I went back to the laptop, and see that I’ve forgotten to mute the microphone. The one thing more embarrassing than talking TO your cat when people can hear is talking WITH your cat.

On a forum earlier today too I was talking about Teresa MacKinnon’s work with Wimba discussion boards. A colleague had been talking about a voice-recording plug-in for Moodle. I suggested that if it had the functionality of Teresa’s work, i.e. having an option to just click on the set of reply options to open up a recording dialogue, which you could then record a reply and click on it to upload, this is far better than going to a recording program and creating, storing and uploading a file. I used a shorthand phrase to describe this —  a Wimba way. A new post means I can drag out all the old puns that got tired in the previous post.

So both of these things came up in the webinar this morning while we were waiting for people to turn up. I relayed the conversation with my cat (quoting the cat’s parts). Then I recounted the “a Wimba way” pun (which works better in audio than text). Which meant that the participants entered the Connect room either hearing me meowing, or me and my colleague singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight before the session started.

Now anyone who knows me is aware one of my biggest faults is a poor filter mechanism. I don’t play out in my head things before saying them. So maybe that doesn’t always come across as professional. However, I am going to argue that actually in online teaching, it’s incredibly useful.

One of the topics of the presentations in the seminar covered the role of humour in teaching. The presenter said how useful it is. She also pointed out how much we as teachers rely on visual cues from students and how that’s missing in an online environment. I’d agree with that, but only to a point, in that it’s also possible to develop the habit of supplying and looking for other cues. Emoticons, brief comments, even just seeing the “(typing)” notification appear in the chat box are all cues that the audience is engaged. After one particularly bad experience with presenting via videoconference (no camera at the far end, and no typed responses to my questions – but I still kept going – then found out when I finished that no-one had been listening to me because a row had broken out at the far end about a previous session, and the row had got so bad that people had actually been thrown out) I will now not continue unless I get a response. “I’m waiting …. I can wait all day if necessary.” We need to train our students into supplying those cues during our teaching.

Another presenter discussed the role of cake in teaching. In order to engage her students she brings them cake. Cake also helps with encouraging them to attend focus groups. I have been employed by 10 universities now, and Brookes does have the best cake. Another lecturer discussed Lego which we also all agreed was an excellent motivation for learning but a real bastard to kneel on.

At the end of the session all of the presenters said it was a lot less nerve-wracking than they’d been expecting. One of them said it was a real laugh.

The problem with presence online is a difficult one to overcome. You can never be as present online as you can in a proximal situation. The technology can only do so much at bridging distance. However, this can be compensated for by a whole range of mechanisms, particularly humour, and being relaxed, and being as personable as possible (in words of Mel C, be yourself, unless you’re a tw.t, in which case be someone else), and off-topic at times, and talking about cake, can all add to that sense of being together. It takes a couple of goes to relax that much, to be able to function despite the visual cues (actually for me it’s probably a lot easier without them because the visual cues are quite often eye-rolling). I’d suggest we all attempt to inculcate that type of interaction as much as possible.

And I’ll carry on having conversations with my cat.

BIM Level 3 compliance

Still blogging about the BIM-Hub project from at the website http://bim-hub.lboro.ac.uk/ As we’re half way through the PI and I have started looking at follow-up projects and one of the grants going round at Loughborough at the moment is Enterprise funding. So we were looking at commercial exploitability of what we were doing. Throughout the project we’ve been looking at a range of things, one of these is how to set up collaborative projects between multiple universities, and what needs to be in place for the students to conduct them effectively. On top of that are the skills that the students need to collaborate. Breaking those down though we can see that some of these aren’t specific to online collaboration, they are generic skills for any type of collaboration, meeting deadlines, planning activities, that sort of stuff. However all of them need to be in place, and not all of them can be assumed to be amongst the skillsets of the students. Well in fact you shouldn’t assume any of them. For me though, the most fascinating are the skills that need to be acquired to make the online synchronous interactions work effectively. It ties into my work on presence a great deal, and has been called by one of my colleagues situational awareness. You can see in the recordings of early meetings, there is little in the way of an online situational awareness, and this really gets in the way of an effective collaboration.

Looking at commercial exploitability the PI on the project was talking about a new version of BIM that is being introduced. BIM is Building Information Modelling, which is a kind of transactional online space in which architects’ plans, building models etc are all shared, together with timelines, deadlines and so on (OK that’s a given if we’re talking about a transactional online space, but this is specifically for the Built Environment sector). Level 3 is introducing realtime collaborative manipulation of 3D models to facilitate online co-creation of digital artefacts. The technology will be in place, but experience indicates that the skillset in order to make this work effectively won’t be thought about until people start screwing up. It was the same with videoconferencing. The trainers and techies would come in, set up the link, explain which button to press, and leave people to it, assuming “well they know how to teach”. Thing was, the skills needed to teach in a videoconferencing environment are far different than a classroom. You have to emote more, you have to pay a lot more attention to backchannels, you have to take your own level of participation way down (because the cognitive load of watching a lecturer on the screen is way higher than following them in a lecture room) and you also need to give them stuff to do in classroom, to bring back to the videoconference, so they get a break from it. And you also need to find little tricks to create a stronger link between the two ends (matching physical artefacts, that sort of stuff). There’s other techniques too.

So teachers would come in, use the videoconferencing kit as they’d been shown, but with no training in the specific skills on *how to function in that environment. The session would be a disaster and they’d go back to travelling a day or two to do a two-hour lesson.

So, the dangers are that BE businesses are going to use Level 3 BIM, not realise there are a load of soft skills they need to apply to make the collaboration effective and deem the whole thing a failure. What we’ve realised we’ve done in the project is to dry run the whole Level 3 BIM thing with students in a working simulation, with similar software, and identify what the issues are in order to provide guidance for anyone using Level 3 BIM. There may be some more once it gets used in the commercial sector, but we have a strong evidence base for what needs to be done.

So … even if the bid for further funding isn’t successful – putting the bid together has been useful because it clarifies the value of what we’re doing on the current project. I’m a big fan of utilisation evaluation, you just find out the stuff you can use. On the project we’ve now got a really good idea of what we need to find out, and for whom. And … that it will have a real practical use.

Social presence and bots

cog

One of the issues with MOOCs and just a whole mass of OER in general, is that if you have thousands of people looking at the materials, who’s going to help give you the individual steer through them that many learners need. Bots are one of the things that may help with this. Bots or companion agents, or AI tutors – they can be called any of these things (but NOT avatars, avatars are specifically online representations of humans, don’t get them mixed up) are standalone programs, which can be purely text-based, but are usually these days a head and shoulders or even a 3D representation (in which case they are embodied companion agents). In virtual worlds, they are indistinguishable from avatars, until you start to talk with them). Even then I’ve run workshops where one or more of the attendees have had long and increasingly frustrated conversations with a bot. There is a sort of intellectual arms race between humans and bots called the Turing test. The idea is that a person will try to work out by having a conversation whether something is human or computer driven (a process called turing, i.e. they ture, they are turing, they have tured – actually only i call it that, but I’m trying to get it taken up by everyone else and eventually adopted by the OED). Although the programs are getting better, people are getting better at turing, so the bar is rising faster than the programmers can match. At the moment.

In the work I’ve been doing with avatars, there’s a strong link between the affinity people feel with their avatar and their perception of how effective their learning is. In the project I’ve been doing with Ravensbourne College and Elzware, I started with the same hypothesis, if the learner feels more affinity with the bot that’s leading them through the content, will they experience their learning as more effective?

emo

We’re not at that stage yet, but in the first phases – since the ethos of the project is that it is a user-centred design – we began with a series of workshops to identify which of a series of bot designs the learners would feel a greater affinity towards, and why.

The students selected a bot design that was not anthropomorphic, though narrowly beating one that was. The reasons for this were various, but was down to three major reasons:

Bots that were realistic and too anthropomorphic were too creepy and too distracting.

Bots that were cartoony and too anthopomorphic weren’t creey but were still distracting.

Bots that were realistic but not anthropomorphic were just right.

Bots that were cartoony and not anthropormorphic were unengaging.

goop

“Realistic” in this sense, is a very specific usage, meaning engaging the breadth and/or depth of senses, and is the sense that people like Naimark and Steuer use it. So it could be 3D rendering, higher number of bits, more detail and so on. It also means behavioural realism, and it was this aspect, having a personality (and not necessarily a pleasant one) that students felt made the “realistic” but non-anthropomorphic the best tutors for them.

We still haven’t been able to put this to the test – the actual I in the AI is still being worked on, but we have hopefully put in place a design that will make the bot something the students want to learn from.

On presence, III

OK so, what was, I thought a fairly obscure ramble through ideas on presence, (I actually almost didn’t post anything about it at all) has generated a lot of interest. who’d have thought it? so anyway to re-cap …

Immersion seems to matter for virtual worlds, moreso than for LMSes (aka VLEs) or other technologies. Engagement isn’t the same as immersion, engagement really involves a critical stance apart from the medium being viewed. Presence improves our interaction and motivation in learning in different environments. Presence is a combination of mediated presence (“being there” aka immersion) + social presence (projection of ourselves, perception of others) + copresence (being somewhere with others) + self presence (or embodiment).

So what actually is embodiment?

At the moment I’m writing (or should be writing) the introduction to the book Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. Introductions are always tricky, because, if you’re introducing a book on a topic similar to one you’ve written before, there will be some overlap with previous introductions. Keeping it fresh forces you to refine your argument each time. With the ULVW intro I’m really bringing VWs down to two unique things, the 3D space and the avatar. The 3D space gives us the opportunity to fully experience the sense of “being there” in the virtual world. The avatar is a basis for us to create social presence and copresence, through being an attachment on which to hang our identities, or a body through which to create an identity, or portray one. Avatars give us a body image in that space.

However, avatars don’t just give us a body image, (we can actually have those to some extent through environments like this, with our gravatars). They also give us a body schema in the virtual world.

I said before that many media are immersive, we feel immersed in them. We feel like we are there. But it’s a formless, and bodiless form of being there. When we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we can feel like the world surrounds us, it absorbs our attention (psychological immersion) or in a 3D movie we can actually see it around us (perceptual immersion). However our bodies don’t actually have a presence in that space. One of my friends was playing Halo for the first time last week, and posted in FB “when i look down i can see my legs. Awesome” and yes, yes it is. Taylor in The social life of avatars used the phrase “through avatars our interaction in virtual worlds is grounded in the practice of the body” which is a fantastic phrase, because it sums it up so well. We have a body in that space. We can express ourselves through movement, we can feel awkward if someone stands too close to us. We have a locus for direct, personal, experience. When you have a body within an online environment, shit just got real.

How does embodiment happen? Well, our body schemata are plastic. For most of us. A prosthesis can feel part of us. The rubber hand illusion can freak us out. Our sense of selfhood is not necessarily located within our physical body, it can be transferred to an extension of that body. Including an avatar. If that happens, that’s embodiment. There’s a neurological basis for this happening. I don’t really understand the biology, but have learnt that if you say left inferior parietal cortex with enough conviction, that doesn’t really matter. But one day I would like to get the authors of this: “How the Human Brain Goes Virtual: Distinct Cortical Regions of the Person-Processing Network Are Involved in Self-Identification with Virtual Agents” by Shanti Ganesh, Hein T. van Schie, Floris P. de Lange, Evan Thompson and Danie¨ l H. J. Wigboldus, in the journal Cerebral Cortex to explain it to me in layperson’s terms. Studies also indicate that if you spend time in virtual worlds, when you recall the memory of being there, the same parts of your brain activate as in the real physical world. The strikethrough there is important. Because if we’re talking about experiences (the basis of cognitivist learning theories) then our brains don’t distinguish between the physical and the virtual. Here’s something in New Scientist about that http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18117-how-your-brain-sees-virtual-you.html  Biocca pre-empted a lot of this in his paper that I referenced in the first post on this http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/biocca2.html   “increases in self-presence are correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly, emotional development”. If we want our students to experience experiential learning in virtual worlds, then creating a feeling of embodiment is key.

For most of us. Remember I said that? Taking that cue from Biocca, for my PhD I asked groups of students about their experience of presence (all four types), I also asked them about their perceptions of the learning experience (I didn’t have access to the data on whether or not they did learn, so this was the next best thing). One in four of the students reported experiencing very low presence in the environment. Carrie Heeter asked similar questions in a study about 15 years ago now, on people’s sense of embodiment in a video image. 1 in 4 didn’t feel any. I recently did a survey of attendees of a virtual world installation at an art gallery.I asked them how many really didn’t feel they got anything out of it. the answer was 1 in 4. 1 in 4 people aren’t affected by the rubber hand illusion. According to Ganesh et al, 1 in 4 people don’t have a plasticity in body schema, their right inferior parietal cortex dominates, not their left one (see how that sounds authoritative when i say that?). Now I’m not making any claims here, but I think that’s probably a pattern. I’m also very pleased with myself for, I think, being the first person to spot that.

Oh, the other half of my survey. About the students’ perception of learning anything. Almost without exception, the students who experienced presence (in all of its forms) perceived the learning activity as worthwhile. Those that didn’t, didn’t. It was a smallish sample size (36) but the correlation was strong enough to be able to say that this is not by chance. In fact in quantitative data analysis you can do a statistical thing called a chi -squared test to work out what the probability is for this to just be a fluke. It’s called a p value or confidence value. 1 in 20 is ok, 1 in 100 is pretty good. The p value for this is 1 in 860 million (if i did my maths right). So that’s pretty solid.

So why does this matter so much for virtual worlds, when immersion doesn’t matter so much for other media in order to learn? Which was my original question really. Well three things possibly. One is that virtual worlds are so hard to get the hang of, you’ve got to really get something valuable out of it to find them worthwhile. Secondly remember, there are a lot of other forms of presence going on besides immersion. They don’t happen in other environments at all, cannot happen, but to observe them happening around you and not experiencing them yourself must be an alienating experience. Thirdly, if you’re just observing information, reading, writing, downloading uploading, then immersion isn’t important, but with the activities we were doing, where they were based on the learners having experiences, then if those experiences weren’t actually felt because the students weren’t embodied, then they must have been failry hollow activities for them. The fact that that matters is a good thing (it means we’re offering something unique for learners, that they can’t get anywhere else, which is “real” experiential learning). It also means that if we’re using them to their fullest extent, in the most meaningful pedagogical way, that there will be a quarter of the student base who will not get it, and may not benefit from it.

More on presence

This is the second part of a discussion on presence and its effect on learning and at some point will get round to answering the question asking what’s so special about the more immersive technologies if all technologies provide immersion?

First off, I think the discussion needs to create some definitions. This is what irritated me when I started looking at this, is that different terms exist for the same thing, and the same term is used to describe different things. There’s a run-down of the confusion in my thesis, where I might get a bit ranty about it. That’s at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/alumni/services/eportfolios/edrfap/doctoralstudy/childs_thesis_final.pdf pages 36/37 …so I’m not going to get into that again here. I’m not really wedded to these definitions, so if anyone wants to propose any others, then fine. But lets as a community try and come up with some we all agree with. The requirements are those with provenance, which are mutually exclusive and actually descibe something real.

In the last post I used the word presence to describe the sense of “being there” at a remote location, or in a virtual environment, which is how it’s often used. The problem is that there are different ways to experience presence, of which “being there” is only one. So we have one usage of the word “presence” which is nested inside another definition. I don’t know why this doesn’t seem to bother other people as much as it should. So … I’m suggesting we just use the word “presence” when we’re talking about this to refer to any and all types, and come up with another phrase (I’m going to throw in “mediated presence” as a suggestion) for the sense of “being there”. Mediated presence can be either distal presence for the experience of being at a remote (but real) location, or virtual presence if it’s computer-generated.

I talked about mediated presence a bit last time, and said that it’s probably equivalent to immersion. When we watch a movie we can feel like the world is real and around us. I remember watching a scene in a film at a cinema (Dead Calm) and a boom swung across the camera. Everyone in front of me ducked. For that moment they so felt that they were in the movie world that they thought the boom might hit them.  3D is great, and is more immersive (I sat with my eyes closed for chunks of Avatar because it was making me motion sick, I don’t get that with 2D) but 2D is still immersive enough. There’s perceptual immersion, where our vision is fooled into thinking we’re there, and psychological immersion, where we’re so absorbed in something that we’re caught up in the fictional world. Both of those are mediated presence. I also don’t think that helps with education. I used to teach Film Studies, and trying to get students to take notice of the expressionistic chiaroscuro in film noir, for example, when they were  really into the story was much harder. Critical reflection is more important in those circumstances. If you want to enjoy it though, immersion/mediated presence is.

But other sorts of presence do exist, which have already been mentioned in the comments to the last post. One of these is social presence. Social presence (in my definitions) is what we project when we’re in an online enviironment about ourselves. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Our ability to use the technology is one (affordances of technology aren’t intrinsic to the technology, they’re a function of what the tech does and how those features can be made use of by its users). Our expressiveness is another. Our comfort with the tech and with our audience. Our experience. It’s also a function of others’ ability to perceive it. So we use an avatar or photo, we add a profile, with personal and professional information, we learn to use font for EMPHASIS, or italics if the interface permits it or emoticons :-p We can use other devices too if we’re familiar with them like <showing off> pseudo html to indicate mood </showing off> or hashtags #overdoingitnow to add the nuances that are missing from spoken words when we use text. The irony is, that now since text is such a familiar madium in which we convey social presence, it has become far more capable of conveying tone and subtlety and nuance, than the spoken word. If we choose to use those paratextual features that is. Those less fluent can still be confused by “those weird symbols at the end of the sentences”.

Social presence is probably the most familiar form in which the word presence is used in a face-to-face context. We talk about stage presence, or classroom presence, and although we all know what it is, it’s difficult to pin down though. Again it’s ability to modulate tone, it’s assurance, it’s confident body language. Advice on classroom presence I’ve read says that it comes from knowing your subject. In part that’s true, but I’ve covered up not knowing what I’m talking about more than once by just knowing how to sound like I know what I’m talking about. I’m sure this is why we have vivae in doctoral programmes. So the examiners can judge whether you’ve aquired that skill too, since it’s the one that’s the key one in being an academic.

Usually mixed up with social presence (and in fact people tend to use the phrases interchangeably) is copresence, or the sense that you are co-located with someone. A brief reflection will convince anyone that these are distinct things though. You can sit in a lecture room and feel the social presence of the person on the stage, but still don’t feel a connection with them. And the same can be true the other way round. The audience can be just a sea of faces.You are in the same place, but there is no connection. Copresence is the converse of the concept of transactional distance. Even face-to-face with some people, and hearing them wittering on about a range of superficial things and you can feel no copresence with them, sure they have a lot of social presence, but they might as well be a face on a TV screen for all the experience of making a connection with them.

I did some research on videoconferencing for JISC and SURF (114 to 123 in the thesis, or published in the DIVERSE Conference proceedings 2007/08 (Childs, 2009)). And asked the students about how connected they felt to the lecturer at the other end. The answer was basically that when it was just the lecturer talking, and the students didn’t feel they had any social presence themselves, then they didn’t feel part of what was going on. Although the lecturers knew their stuff, it became difficult for the students to concentrate on what was being said. Basically, if you’re teaching, working on your own social presence isn’t enough, you need to enable your students’. It’s only in combination you achieve copresence, and it’s in that where you really motivate your students.

Lots of online environments support social presence. Blogging does. VLEs do. You can project your online identity and get a sense of others, but where virtual worlds hold their own are in the opportunites to support copresence. You can put up 3D models on a website, and other people can look at them, but nowhere else can you experience walking around that model with someone else and have them standing next to you and talking to you while you do it.

I’ve looked a lot at how students experience these different forms of presence in virtual worlds, and for some, it’s difficult. They don’t get that sense of connection with the world, they don’t feel immersed. But if there’s only one thing they do get out of being in that environment it’s that sense of copresence with others.

There’s one other aspect of presence I think applies to people’s interaction with online environments, and that’s self-presence, or embodiment. But more on that next time. Also, why I think perhaps immersion/mediated presence is important in learning in virtual worlds, where it isn’t in other media.

Childs, M. (2009) The role of presence in learning in telematic environments, in M. Childs, L. Schnieders, P. van Parreeren and J. Oomen (eds), DIVERSE Conference Proceedings 2007 & 2008, Haarlem; InHolland University, 73 -85

Immersion, presence and immersiveness

This post is prompted by a discussion I’ve been having in linkedin with many of the delegates from the Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds conference in Lisbon earlier this month. It’s extracted from the various posts I made, but also prompted by their comments, so thanks to them for the discussion.

The question was really about the role of immersion in general, and in virtual worlds in particular, and whether it’s different in different environments, and particularly what immersion is and how it differs from other forms of experience.

I think the problem with much of this is that we’re trying to explain experiences that aren’t necessarily ones we’re used to, in that the technology does provide new sorts of experiences. And that these things are defined differently by different authors, so we’re not always talking about the same thing.

For me, immersion is a very precise metaphorical term for that sense of feeling submerged in an experience. It’s like being immersed in water when you’re taking a bath. Making a certain set of technologies different because they’re so called immersive technologies is pointless as far as this is concerned, because any technology is immersive. You can lose yourself in a book, that’s becoming immersed in it. You can do the same in a play or a film. In those media it’s called the diegetic effect, the fictional world of the narrative becomes real just for the period that you’re part of it.

Is immersion the same as presence? I think it probably is. While you’re feeling immersed, you’re transported to that fictional world. There’s a paper by Sheridan MIT’s journal Presence in which he talks about the sense of actually being there when we experience these media. There’s a sense of departure from one reality and arrival at the other. We get in the flow of the text, of the narrative or whatever, but if something intrudes, someone talking in the cinema, or a cat jumping on your lap, then that connection with that fictional space is lost.

I rant about that a bit on a post in a previous blog. It’s in response to the BBC placing a trailer for a TV show over the top of the climax of Dr Who http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/markchilds/entry/responses_to_nortongate/ worrying not just because it ruined the experience, but also because anyone who can do that obviously doesn’t get a large point of what art and entertainment are for, which is that sense of transportation and immersion.

Is immersion necessary for learning, or for engagement? On the whole, I don’t think it is. In fact some entertainment deliberately avoids immersion. Brecht called that Verfremsdungseffekt. I’m reading Midnight’s Children at the moment, it’s a good book and I’m enjoying it. But the frequent breaking of the author into the narrative, and the jumping from scenario to the next precludes that sense of flow, of being caught up with the story. The reader isn’t submerged in the same way. Actually that distant, sometimes critical reflective position is often referred to as engagement and there’s a great paper here on how that works in Grand Theft Auto http://www.jorisdormans.nl/article.php?ref=theworldisyours by moving between a sense of immersion and engagement, is perhaps how we get the most out of something. Experiencing both at once is supposedly possible too, a state called metaxis.

Two people can watch the same piece or experience the same technology and one can feel immersed and the other not. Ultimately immersion happens in your head, not on the screen. Technology has something to do with it though, but the problem with the idea of immersive technology is that it implies somehow that it creates that sense of immersion. It doesn’t but it can help. It’s more useful therefore to think of immersiveness as a series of technological factors that can contribute to immersion (resolution, frame rate, width of field, soundsurround, haptics, etc. the so-called depth and breadth of senses engaged) as objective measures, without being hung up on the issue that they don’t actually cause immersion.

I think one of the clarifications that can help is the difference between perceptual immersion and psychological immersion … this is in At the Heart of it All by Lombard and Ditton http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/lombard.html which together with Biocca’s The Cyborg’s Dilemma http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/biocca2.html is probably the most seminal article on this. Immersive technologies lead to perceptual immersion, but this might not necessary lead to psychological immersion. And psychological immersion can take place without recourse to messing with your perceptions. It depends on the individual. How it depends on the individual is one of the things I’m particularly interested in looking at. But more on that some other time.

Another thing that gets bundled into the same package as immersion is immediacy. Sometimes immersion is defined as the perception of non-mediation. I don’t think these are equivalent at all. Sure if you’re in an environment where you don’t notice the technology it can seem real (if technology ever gets that sophisticated) but actually the things that help mediate information can actually help you feel more immersed. An example: minimaps in Second Life. They pop up on screen, (so you’re aware of something between you and the virtual space) but once you’re accustomed to them, and incorporate them into the automatic way you interact with the world, they become extensions of your perception, they help you wayfind round the space, and so therefore add to the sense of immersion.

So we have three factors that are linked, but also have differences: immersion (=presence), immediacy (=non-mediation) and immersiveness (=realness, vividness).

I’m using the word presence for “being there” and I’m deliberately avoiding the word telepresence because that’s become an ambiguous word. Originally it was coined by Minsky to mean ability to act at a distance http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/Telepresence.html but was since expanded to mean anything at which you felt you were present at a remote location (like feeling a videoconference was actually a face-to-face meeting). Recent developments in technology have reappropriated the word to mean specifically technologies that enable you to act at a distance, not just experience being at a distance. For that I’m trying to get into using the phrase “distal presence” since that’s not ambiguous. But I just wish people would come up with a definition for a word, that’s different from their definition of a different word. And stick to it.

So if any technology can cause immersion, why get hung up on the more immersive technologies? Good question, but I’ve run out of space. Some other time.

Sheridan, T. (1992) Musings on telepresence and virtual presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 1 (1), 120 – 126